The great golf secret of the Berkshires was the achievement of Donald Ross at the Orchards, followed by the unspoken tale of the course’s decline. A round of applause, then, for its stirring comeback.
On New England woodland that creaks, slants and upwells into drumlins and ridges, Ross was always able to see the future. He knew the flight patterns of golf balls not yet struck and the visual riddles he could pose by adding this and that feature to the natural landscape. Rambling through these pines and hardwoods around the corner from Mt. Holyoke College, to which founder Joseph Skinner deeded the club in 1941, Ross must have realized right away how he could set the terrain to music.
The reason for discussing these matters now is that the Orchards has been rescued. It’s been saved from the slow decline and atrophy it had been enduring since those folky 1960s, when responsibility for its upkeep began falling into the cracks between the college’s grounds department and a membership that was stronger of will than it was deep of pocket. With greens shrinking, fairways corroding and vegetation strangling the waterways designed to keep storm water from flooding holes 1, 9, 10 and 18, new overseers had to be summoned.
Enter Arnold Palmer Golf Management, which took over at the beginning of 2000. It is once again a seductive pleasure to walk and play and replay in your mind during the ride home. Its original routing and pacing are unchanged, and these assets alone make the course a woodland wonder.
With the 3rd hole, the course lunges out into the forest with a reachable par 5 that opens a window on Ross’ core sense of strategy and aesthetics. From a slightly elevated tee, the golfer playing No. 3 surveys a landing area framed at the back by a ridge-like roll of land that extends, on a slight diagonal, the full width of the fairway.
One player out of 20 can ponder flying this ridge, but he would do so without the comfort of seeing where his ball might land. More typical is the player who could drive long enough to reach the upsweep of the ridge and thus have a crack at reaching this green in two. But in doing so he would have to play that stroke blind, with the threat of ending up in a wooded bog to the right of the elevated green or in a stand of trees to the left.
While left is the safe side of this fairway, it also becomes the unpredictable side, because the mound will disperse incoming iron shots in random directions and then set up uneven lies for ensuing pitch shots. If you’ve played modern courses that turn loose the pyrotechnics to load their horizons with high, billowing mounds, the sophistication of Ross’ single, bony ridge and subtle fairway mound of Orchards’ 3rd hole has to impress.
One of the course’s quirks is the odd way it makes its turn, serving up a level, slender par-3 10th that tightly borders the concluding section of the 9th. The glory of Orchards is its quartet of par 4s from the 12th through the 15th. This run of holes takes place near the highest terrain of the 160-acre property and features several shots the golfer fidgets with eagerness to have a crack at.
There is always built-in nostalgia when a discerning golfer happens upon a vintage course in an out-of-the-way place. When that vintage course is a rebuilt, reborn chestnut like Orchards Golf Club, the discovery or the rediscovery is all the richer.